The guy at the table next to me jabs me in the shoulder, smiles a gap-toothed grin and points at his meal. It's a huge whole fish, steamed, covered in spring onions and herbs, bathed in a rich sauce. He gives me the thumbs-up, grins again, and takes a slug of his beer.
I think it's a recommendation, and a welcome one too given the size of the menu at this restaurant-that-isn't-really-a-restaurant, this cramped space on a street corner in the Old Quarter of Hanoi where the diners are packed shoulder to shoulder, sweating, laughing, yelling. The tables here are plastic; the floor is rough concrete; the stools are low.
The place is called Bia Hoi Ha Noi, one of many no-frills bars in the Vietnamese capital specialising in "bia hoi", or house-brewed beer, a frosty glass of which will set you back about 50¢. We've racked up a whole dollar or two of drinking by the time the huge menu comes out and we have to navigate it, helped by old mate next door pointing at his fish, buoyed by the knowledge that everything here might be a little unfamiliar and almost frighteningly cheap, but it also looks absolutely delicious.
Bia Hoi Ha Noi isn't an anomaly, either, with its affordable and excellent cuisine. Hanoi is a city of gastronomes, a place where a good meal doesn't mean a fancy restaurant, but rather the opposite. The best food here costs the least, it's served up by people who've been cooking their entire lives and eaten by a general population who have long been spoiled by the good stuff.
These bia hoi shops are the perfect introduction, places that are high on quality and low on pretence. That whole fish being devoured at the table next to me cost about $3. Plates of snacks like tofu or fried quail legs go for $1 each. The beer is the highlight though, cold and tasty and insanely cheap.
And this meal is just one of an almost uncountable series of delicious and affordable gastronomic experiences in Hanoi, where each meal brings another bargain, another sensation.
Pho, the famed Vietnamese noodle soup, is of course everywhere here, dished up from early in the morning until late at night by street vendors and shop owners. At Pho Thin they do their soup a little differently to the others, stir-frying the beef in garlic and oil before adding it to the broth, imbuing the whole dish with a silky, fatty texture and a garlicky scent.
For a special dish like this, unfortunately, you have to pay extra – the soup at Pho Thin costs about $3 a bowl. Ouch.
Back to reality at Quan Goc Da, yet another no-frills shopfront on a busy Hanoi street, a shabby place next to a motorbike mechanic where the crowd out the front is a dead giveaway of the quality inside. Quan Goc Da specialises in all things deep-fried, though the favourite is "nem", or deep-fried spring rolls.
Here you sit at a bare metal table, hunched on your plastic stool, wrapping spring rolls in fresh lettuce and herbs, dipping them in sweet and spicy sauce, listening to the chatter of diners and the hammering coming from the mechanic and the roar of traffic outside and you think to yourself: this is costing me about $2. Amazing.
And still, there's more to eat on the cheap. There's "cha ca", a dish of turmeric-infused catfish served with fresh noodles and dill, served at Cha Ca Thang Long. There's "bun cha", a rich pork soup with noodles, at Bun Cha Huong Lien, the restaurant visited by Anthony Bourdain and Barrack Obama. There's "bun bo nam bo", a vermicelli beef salad, at Nha Hang Bach Phuong Bun Bo Nam Bo.
And there's cash left over for another bia hoi.
Ben Groundwater travelled at his own expense
Vietnam Airlines flies direct from Sydney to Hanoi (with connecting flights available from Melbourne). See vietnamairlines.com
The Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is one of the city's classic hotels, set in the heart of the city. Rooms start from $429 per night. See sofitel-legend-metropole-hanoi.com